Sudan’s Abyei region is a possible troublespot from which conflict could resume, three years after a comprehensive agreement was signed to end civil war between the north and south, the UN special envoy to Sudan has warned.
The oil-rich region, which lies between north and south Sudan, has experienced an administrative and political vacuum after disagreements over its status.
"The Abyei area had not changed materially [and] remained a potential flashpoint for the resumption of conflict," Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sudan, told the Security Council on 19 February.
"In December 2007 and January 2008, violent clashes erupted between SPLA [Sudan People's Liberation Army] units and Misseriya tribesmen. Those encounters resulted in the reported death of more than 75 persons, while several others were wounded," he said.
The people of Abyei had been denied the dividends of peace since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). They had also been deprived of an administrative structure and basic services related to the provision of security, education, health and employment.
"The issue of Abyei emerged as the biggest stumbling block between the two partners," the envoy said. While the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) believed that the Abyei Boundary Commission report was final and binding, the ruling National Congress Party had rejected the report, saying the commission had exceeded its mandate by basing its findings on the 1965 border instead of identifying the 1905 boundaries of the Dinka chiefdoms.
But both sides, Qazi told the Council, had recognised the urgent need to work towards a mutually acceptable compromise and the UN Mission in Sudan had encouraged both parties to pursue a final settlement on the basis of dialogue and compromise.
However, he pointed out that while the implementation of the CPA had remained on track, it could still be undermined by lingering mistrust between the two sides.
Troubling perceptions had persisted throughout the country - that the north and south were each following their own agendas and that the international community's overwhelming concentration on Darfur had distracted attention from the need for peace dividends in the south.
The envoy also said elections were mandated to take place in 2009, but parliament had not yet passed the electoral law; redeployment of forces had remained incomplete despite the 9 January deadline, and little progress had been made on disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration.
Analysts have warned that the Abyei issue is a big challenge. According to Roger Winter and John Prendergast of the ENOUGH project, no area is perhaps more volatile and carries more implications for Sudan’s future than Abyei.
"If the political crisis regarding Abyei is addressed, there is potential for peace in the entire country. If it is mishandled, it dramatically increases the possibility that Sudan’s current conflicts - from Darfur to the South to the East - will explode over the coming few years into a national war with regional implications and historically devastating repercussions for its people," they noted.
The International Crisis Group has argued that the international community needs to re-engage urgently on Abyei because the risk of a return to war is rising. Calling for a de-escalation of tension around Abyei, it has offered to facilitate independent dialogue between the Misseriya and Ngok Dinka.
SPLM leaders say the north has ignored its proposals over Abyei because of oil revenues from the region - estimated at US$529 million in 2007.
"Obviously it is because of oil, because Abyei has oil," Southern Sudan Vice-President Riek Machar told IRIN in November. "They want to implement the protocol minus the areas that have oil because they want to carve them out of the South. This is not acceptable." Khartoum denies the claim.